The unsettling desolation of “Britain’s Area 51”

Britain’s answer to Area 51 is Orford Ness. Even though it is now abandoned, much of its territory is too dangerous to walk on, and some of its research is still classified, its past still has an impact on the present and future of the nation.

Located on a spit of land about 100 miles (160 km) north-east of London on the Suffolk coast, Orford Ness was once a top-secret location. But it seems much farther away because of the winding country roads that carry you there. After a lengthy drive, when I finally arrive, I can’t take my eyes off the triangular rooftops of the abandoned nuclear weapon laboratories that line the horizon. Two of the facilities have an unusual pagoda-like appearance due to the necessity of channeling any explosion upwards. A large earthen wall that shields the area from the sea and conceals everything but their roofs from curious passersby.

Visitors have crossed the ferry across the river Orford, which divides the laboratory from the mainland, for more than a century. Now that it’s my turn, I follow the roughly 150 other ticket holders past the memorial stone honoring the men and women who crossed the river to “service their country,” which is easily missed and rather ambiguous.

My sense of time and space is rapidly lost when I get off the boat. It is quiet but the wind. There are no trees, automobiles, or tea shops. There is not much sun protection.

Instead of the lab ruins I was expecting, I saw huge sky country instead: a vast vista that seemed to be impossible to fit into this tiny shingle peninsula.

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Marshland continues in one way to a large bank of shingle where nuclear bomb shells were tested for safety by being spun in a large laboratory centrifuge. In another, it extends to a huge structure that resembles a bunker, with 12 long transmission poles looming over it. This is all that is left of the massive Cobra Mist over-the-horizon radar system, which cost between £500 and £600 million ($604 and $725 million) in 2022 dollars. The system itself is lost beneath the vast blue sky. In the distance, one can see Sizewell Nuclear Power Station’s white dome.

As my eyes adjust to the surroundings, I realize that the marshes is crisscrossed by concrete pillars that were once part of security fences but have since been removed. dangling gates from their hinges. Fuel pumps are leaking wires. Transformers for electricity that are submerged in plants.

I go on and come find the Orford Ness exhibition Island of Secrets in the old officers’ mess from World War 1.

There are legends of a failed German invasion and even an infamous UFO “encounter” in the adjacent Rendlesham Forest in 1985 along this entire shoreline, which is soaked in history and mystery.

The significance of Orford Ness to Britain’s military effort has been compared to that of Bletchley Park’s code-breaking facility (Credit: Geography Photos/Getty Images).
The significance of Orford Ness to Britain’s military effort has been compared to that of Bletchley Park’s code-breaking facility (Credit: Geography Photos/Getty Images).

William Walters, a professor of politics in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University in Ottawa who also studies governmental secrets, claims that “there was always something about this coast that was strange.”

It is simple to forget that this area was a hub of activity for a large portion of the 20th Century while you are out here, lost in the landscape of your imagination. Two hangars were located in the pristine salt marsh, and their concrete aprons had held the wreckage of Luftwaffe aircraft that had been captured or shot down before being transported to the Ness for testing. A fully assembled Japanese “Zero” fighter was the winning display. A massive radio aerial that resembled a ray cannon was out on the shingle.

Men died here as well. The Orford Ness test pilots and researchers who spent their lives in vain attempts to develop new technologies that would win wars are not honored in any way that I can discern. The location might now be hiding some brand-new secrets.

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